How to Play Mafia: An In-Depth Guide to the Perfect Holiday Game

The Godfather mafia
Photo: Paramount Pictures

The holidays can be tiring. There are people everywhere. And they are smiling big time, ear-to-ear, being giving and grateful, and bounding about the city like gazelles across a snowy expanse. Sometimes it’s best to just stay indoors, plan a game night, invite some of your closest friends and (enemies!) over and take them down, one by one. If you are unfazed by Cards Against Humanity and have grown tired to the core of Apples to Apples, then boy do I have the game for you. It’s called Mafia and it’s an old-timey party game that’s been circling the city among my group of friends and — perhaps separated by a degree or two — yours as well. You must have a legit group of people to play, I’d say at least ten, and so what better a time of year than the holidays to learn a little more about that second cousin you only sort of liked your whole life.

A BRIEF HISTORY

When the game is brought up, at least one person recalls playing it or something similar when they were young. I assure you the game is not the same as an adult, when personalities and thought processes are, hopefully, more developed. The game itself was allegedly created by Dmitry Davidoff of the Moscow State University Psychology Department as a research project and then eventually spread to college campuses in Europe and the United States, having a heyday in the ’90s, along with everything else cool in the world. I hadn’t heard of it until one afternoon this past summer while I was hanging out with friends in Bolinas and it was proposed we play. It was that afternoon that my life changed forever, in a fun game kind of way. Although there are many variations, I’m going to teach you to play, the way my friends and I play, so then you’ll know and we can play together because we always need more players; seriously it’s super hard to get that many people in a room!

THE OBJECTIVE

Simply put, the objective of the game is for the mafia to “kill off” civilians until they are the majority or the civilians to kill off the entire mafia. When one of those two things happens, the game is over.

For the sake of example, let’s say you have a group of 13 people in your living room. Roles must be assigned to each person in secret. There will be 3 mafia, 1 detective, 1 doctor, 1 narrator, and 8 civilians. Great, now everyone has a role. Be sure they are all kept under wraps. Do not tell anyone your identity. The game itself is divided into two phases: Day and Night. During the night, everyone keeps his or her eyes closed until the narrator awakens each role beginning with the mafia, then the doctor, then the detective. But who are each of these roles and what do they do? So glad you asked.

THE ROLES

The Narrator keeps time rolling. They do not officially participate in the game, but act as a moderator. During the night, when all players have their eyes closed, the narrator awakens each role and asks them a question. For the mafia, the question is: Who do you want to kill? For the doctor: Who do you want to save? For the detective: Who do you want to know about? During the day, when everyone is awake, the narrator prompts players to nominate those they’d like to kill a.k.a. those they think are in the mafia. The game repeats in phases from night to day, night to day, with one person murdered in each phase (except if they are saved at night by the doctor).

The Mafia, as per our 13-person example, consists of 3 people who find out each other’s identity in the first nighttime phase. While the other players are attempting to figure out who they are, the mafia must lie the entire game and act as though they are civilians. This is, in my opinion, the hardest role as anyone who knows you might be able to tell you are lying. The mafia must strategize together during the day without giving themselves away. At night, when the mafia awaken, they point silently to the player they’d like to kill. If all mafia agree, the player is offed.

The Civilians are attempting to figure out who is in the mafia simply by talking it out, accusing, and seeing who is acting suspicious. As a civilian, it’s best to use verbal/non-verbal cues and your gut to make alliances.

The Doctor is a civilian role that, at each nighttime phase, can save a player he or she thinks the mafia has killed. As mentioned earlier, if the doctor saves the right player, that player is brought back into the game. The doctor cannot save themselves.

The Detective is a civilian role that, at each nighttime phase, can point to a player he or she thinks is in the mafia and the narrator will nod their head yes or no. This role is perhaps the most fun, because once the detective begins to find out the identities of players, they can begin to make alliances with true civilians and or persuade the group to kill true mafia.

HOW TO PLAY

First Night: The narrator begins at night by telling all players to close their eyes. “Mafia, wake up. See your fellow members,” she says. “Mafia, go to sleep.” In the first round, this is all that happens.

First Day: Everyone opens their eyes and the games begin. You must just start accusing people out of nowhere. Who is acting shyer than usual? Who is talking a bit too much? Ask straight-forward questions about identities. Look people directly in the eye and ask them if they are in the mafia. Once a nomination to kill is made, someone must second it for the player to be seriously considered in the mafia. If you have two solid nominations, all players then vote to kill, majority wins. You can have as many nominations as you want, but you need a majority to kill. When a player is killed, they are no longer allowed to speak and their identity is not revealed.

Second Night: All players’ eyes are closed and the narrator awakens the mafia and asks who they want to kill. She then awakens the doctor for the first time and asks who they want to save. And then, she awakens the detective and asks who they want to know about.

Third Day: The narrator awakens all players and someone has been killed, unless the doctor has figured out who the mafia had their sights on and saved this player. The game continues in these phases, day and night, day and night, until civilians kill all mafia members or mafia outnumber civilians.

THE SECOND GAME

Once you are killed from the game, you are then allowed to see the identities of all players at night. You will be shocked to see who has been fooling you and will bond will the other players who have been killed. It is almost just as thrilling to watch the game take place — knowing all the identities — as it is to be alive playing. You will talk about it on your walk home and perhaps the next day. That epic game of Mafia you played where you tricked your closest friends and family into thinking you were on their side and then betrayed them for the win.

It’s the perfect holiday game! If you’re into it, let me know, we always need more people to ask the age-old question: “Are you mafia?”

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Author

David Aloi

David Aloi was born and raised in Buffalo, New York where it snows like all the time. He attended college at SUNY Geneseo and received his MFA in creative writing at CCA in 2009. David enjoys things like balloons, cereal, tea, and running fast.

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